A curious thing has happened in the last decade or so of hockey at its highest levels: everyone who stepped on the ice was a better player than his or her predecessors.
Now, I’m not saying Frank Mahovlich wasn’t a good hockey player. Gordie Howe? He knew how to play the game in his era. Then there was Bobby Orr, who I can’t stop thinking about during our month of celebrating defensemen here at The Coaches Site.
But with respect to all the greats, these days we’re looking at a lot more Bobby Orr than ever before.
The advent of skills instructors in addition to traditional minor hockey coaches has been one factor in the improved skill of minor hockey players, but I’d argue a bigger factor still has been the desire to play a fast, creative game minus the clutching and grabbing of the 80’s and 90’s. Sure, Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey dominated n the 80’s, but in those days they could skate so much better than everyone else that the obstruction wasn’t as much of an obstruction, not compared to later times when everyone could skate, even the grinders on the fourth line.
Nowadays everyone wants to play the game. Auston Mathews has opened our eyes to the values of creativity, instinct, and pure skill, while Connor McDavid has provided an example of the world’s first perfect hockey machine.
So who’s going to pass the puck to those players?
The First Job of the Defenseman
When I work with defensemen early in the season, I start the curriculum at the offensive blue line. This includes drills and sequences teaching them when to pinch, how to gap up on opposing wingers, and how to read the cycle so they know when to dive in from the blue line. So far this season I’m seeing that early work pay off in the offensive zone; our defense are getting involved regularly and they’re comfortable with that style of play.
Where I’m not seeing a lot of comfort is creativity in the defensive zone. After making offensive blue line work a focus during training camp, I’ve found that other areas of the ice have suffered – suffered might be too strong of a word, but the reality is you can’t focus on everything, right?
No excuses, remember that.
The defenseman’s first job when they have the puck in the defensive zone is to move it to the forwards. Sure, sometimes they skate it north, but if they’re skating it on their own it probably means the opposition is sitting back and covering all the forwards, and the best you’re going to get is a dump-in, which isn’t as ideal as carrying the puck into the offensive zone.
So, if the other team is forechecking heavily, and your defense is under serious pressure, one soft spot that’s usually open is the front of the net. You’ve seen it before – D1 attacks the puck, F1, usually the centre, supports the first player. After that, the second D squeezes so you can out-number the forecheckers. Who’s open? The weak-side winger, nice and low in front of your net. If your D can retrieve the puck and pass it in front of the next to that forward, they’ll have plenty of open ice ahead of them and a chance to carry the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone. It happens quick.
So how do you convince your defensemen to make that pass?
Practice it. Over and over again. You might have to start with something a little less nerve-wracking, like bumps and reverses behind the net, but the only way your players are going to make plays that go against what they’ve been taught (or what you’ve been taught) in the past is to re-live the scenario over and over again in practice. And be warned, this focus could take over from some other area of focus, but if it’s something you believe can help your transition game, then commit to it and practice it.